THE DINING REPORT – IMPERIAL

Where Graciousness Overcomes Salt

IMG_3178Vitaly Paley has to be one of Portland’s most famous chefs, not only a James Beard award nominee, but an actual winner of this prestigious cooking award. Another distinction, he’s one of the few local chefs who has managed to bridge the gap between Portland restaurant food of old and Portland’s current explosive dining scene, Paley’s Place still respected and going strong after 18 years. Obviously, Mr. Paley is also a deliberate, careful man, having one of Portland’s upper echelon dining houses for at least 15 years, but never opening a second restaurant until this Fall. Contrast this to Duane Sorenson, owner of Stumptown Coffee, he opened the Woodsman Tavern last fall, then the Woodsman Market, is about to open the Italian influenced Ava Genes on Division, a separate pizza parlor nearby, and I think a “beer hall” as well. Of course, Mr. Sorenson last year sold part of Stumptown to New York investors, so his capital is probably a great deal more fluid than Vitaly Paley’s. That being said, I also get the impression that Mr. Paley didn’t want to have his name associated with any venture that might besmirch his fine reputation (did someone say Corazon?) but at the same time wanted to go in a direction new and distinctive. (Of course, Duane Sorenson is not a chef to begin with, he’s a coffee magnet and owner, so he didn’t really have a food related reputation to damage. It doesn’t matter, as The Woodsman’s really good anyway.)

Anyway, back to the cautious Vitaly Paley and his new joint, Imperial. Were I to have a meal at Paley’s Place (it’s been a long time, it’s kind of spendy) and then be blindfolded, and taken inside 10 restaurants to guess which one was Paley’s new venture, the Imperial would most likely be guess 9 or 10. It’s black inside, it’s kooky, much of the decor is actually edgy. Paley’s Place, for all its hospitality and quaintness, is rather staid. It’s in an old house, and it’s much like eating in an old house in NW Portland (not that I don’t love old NW houses.) It’s classy, and refined, and even somewhat delicate. Imperial has big, dark chandeliers made from bicycle chains (they reminded me of something from the Addams Family.) Imperial has garish yellow/gold wallpaper with a loud tattoo pattern right next to fancy neutral colored tiles that look like they are from a high-end subway tunnel near to booths that don’t really match with either. Imperial has roughly poured concrete beams right next to your table, a ceiling with all the plaster knocked off, and turn of the 20th century exposed brick in the bar area. Imperial is LOUD, and full of buzz, and does weird things like bring parts of your meal on big hunks o’ polished wood. Since it’s a hotel restaurant (Hotel Lucia) the bathroom is about a mile away, down many stairs. The closest restaurant I can think of with a high-end pedigree and respected chef but such a weird conglomeration of decor is Irving Street Kitchen, but that whole place is so kooky inside, it works for them. When we were at Imperial, three of us were having a discussion on how non-homogeneous and discordant the whole of Imperial comes across, so much so that David told us “hey, quit picking the place apart.” And pick though we did, this doesn’t mean that there weren’t sectors of Imperial I didn’t find attractive, over by the bar seemed nice in a very black, modern, industrial way, it’s just SOOOOOO hard to believe this decor could be associated with the “sedate” Vitaly and Kimberly Paley (reputation-wise, of course. I don’t know them personally. For all I know, they are edgy and out of control in person.)

Also, if I was taken to 10 restaurants blindfolded, and told to pick which used to be the Typhoon on Broadway, looking around Imperial I would never guess it was the same place, as Typhoon was so quiet and soothing with delicate green walls and modern artwork, and Imperial is all trashed out (intentionally.) The exposed brick wall, the concrete columns, the rustic wood floor, the ripped out ceiling, everything screams high-end, urban, nice but intentionally distressed.

Of course one reason Imperial might be so different than Paley’s Place is that Imperial isn’t strictly Paley, although Vitaly Paley is the “mastermind” of Imperial, former protegee Ben Bettinger is the Executive Chef.IMG_3181 Many people might remember the youngish Bettinger from his former stint at Beaker and Flask, a place that was originally envisioned as a cool cocktail stopover, but  immediately evolved into a must for foodies with Bettinger at the helm. At B & F Bettinger was known for  his interesting combinations, use of unusual components and the quality of his cooking, and when Mr. Paley decided to seek a second space, Bettinger was his immediate choice to helm the place. The emphasis at Imperial is stated to be simple Northwest Cuisine, following native Oregonian James Beard’s mold, re-imagining foods of historical significance, many cooked over the wood fired grill using native woods for fuel. The ultra fancy wood grill and rotisserie  is supposed to make people think of sitting around a campfire, perhaps roasting their meat on a burning little stick, but somehow when I saw this mondo expensive, million degree, stainless steel grill, I didn’t exactly think of being out in the woods, surrounded by nature.

I was actually late to this dinner, as parking was crazy down around Broadway, and I had to drive around for at least 20 minutes to find a spot. IMG_3194Usually you think it’s the Pearl that’s hard to park, but lately I’ve had good luck there but bad luck finding spaces on the SW side of Burnside. Evidently the lack of business they talk about in the downtown core isn’t extending to this area. I wasn’t exactly keeping ooodles of my co-diners waiting, as this was a disappointingly small turnout for what I thought would be be a big draw, only five of us. Several people mentioned to me earlier that they couldn’t handle the prices, and other folks were traveling. So I guess those were the main issues, as the menu was full of tasty sounding items, and there’s that Paley reputation. The dining room is a large one, and has all these different sections and nooks, and we were seated in this rather odd row of tables which are located East to West between the row of concrete pillars, sort of against the flow of the rest of the tables in our area. The tables, chairs, cutlery, everything seemed classy, and no one appeared put off by the incongruous conglomeration of decor, as the place was loud, buzzing, and plenty busy. As is usual when I am late arriving, I was flustered when the waitress came almost immediately for my drink order, but she was the patient type, so went away for quite a while to let me decide

I sort of miss the cocktail set we used to have in this group, people trying all the out of the ordinary drinks before their meals, but I’ll still take my steady attendees who love eating over those drinkers, I just don’t have much to talk about in the preliminary stages of my reviews.IMG_3174 Glenda, who is mostly wine and bubbly, does occasionally do the G&Ts in the summer, and Scotches in the winter, and on this night, perusing the bill, I see she had a 10 year old scotch that set her back a pretty penny (probably not that much if you are into scotch, but I’m a cheapo drinker.) Surprise, surprise, hold the dropping of the balloons, David had a couple of Rusty Nails (I wonder if David really drinks those because that forlorn clown we once has here by that name was his secret role model?) Cora had a Vodka Tonic, using just well vodka, but she commented on how well make it was, and as a former bartender, we’ll pretend she knows what she’s talking about. I was the only daring spirit, the one seeking cocktail adventure, so I had a Paint Creek (yes, that sounds old timey) which had god only knows what in it. I do remember some apple liqueur (Applejack?) and some opaque ingredients, and that is was a good sized drink, and maybe strong enough to wipe out my memory of what it was.

Starter like items – 

Warm Parker House Rolls  – whipped butter, Jacobsen salt – It’s probably a sad admission on my part, but the one food item I was looking most forward to was the fresh baked dinner rolls. IMG_3185Surprisingly, I was the only person who ordered one from our table, since we are always gobbling those bread products. I heard complaints that they cost a dollar a piece, but if you offer specially baked, high quality rolls, why shouldn’t you charge a little for them? I’m sure they are moderately time consuming. Whatever the case, this was a lovely, hot, fresh baked roll from the oven, covered is some delicious greasiness (butter, oil?) with an over-sized dollop of yummy butter with salt on the side. I tried to cram as much butter as I could on my one roll (yes, I know, I’m such a health fanatic) but still had some left over at the end, which I saved in case a later use came along (it did.)

Fancy Oysters – Nice oysters served on a big chunk of wood, they made Shuhong happy.

Spicy Greens – pickled blueberries, rabbit liver toast – This was a nice looking salad, and certainly had some unusual components, but while Cora said it was good, it wasn’t as good as the kale salad. It was large though, as seems to be the way with salads at Imperial.

Beets and Mussels – Glenda wanted to order at least half of what was on the menu, so asked me for guidance. I said this sounded right up her alley, so she ordered it and loved it. I’m so influential! As I told the waitress, I’m Glenda’s mentor.

IMG_3180Kale and Raw Vegetable Salad – sunflower seed brittle, goat cheese dressing – Really gigantic salad, both David and I got one, and shared with whomever was interested. Although one of the “cheaper” items on the Imperial menu, very high quality, with the creamy goat cheese dressing and interesting hunks of sunflower brittle.

Main Coursey Things – 

IMG_3189Spit-Roasted Lamb Roll and Spoon Lamb – soft polenta, wild plum glaze – That weirdo Cora doesn’t like polenta, so she asked if it would be possible the have some sort of potatoes under her lamb, rather than the corn mush. Imperial is an accommodating place (get it, accommodating place? Har, har! It’s in a(n)  hotel) so when Cora’s lamb arrived, it was perched on potatoes, not yellow goo (I actually like yellow goo.) Cora was very impressed with both lamb preparations, moist, flavorful, and rich. Plus, goo-less.

Fried Rabbit – semolina corn cake, Imperial barrel-aged hot sauce, watermelon rind pickles, Beaumont honey. IMG_3190You would have thought this would have been the perfect entree for Shuhong, as it came with an eye-dropper bottle of hot sauce (that kooky David, I think I saw him trying to put some in his eyeball. You want to talk about red eyes, that will give them to you for sure.) I suppose this is on Imperial’s menu because they wanted to emphasize game in their restaurant, and rabbit is one of the most available game meats you see here. So far, however, the opinions on this particular item have been very mixed. The Willamette Week reviewer described it as being like chicken fried rabbit, and David was also taken aback by the crispy, deep fried preparation. His comment (he and Shuhong were sharing) was “this sure doesn’t taste like chicken” (the usual animal to animal comparison.) They didn’t say it was bad, but they didn’t point out it was overly good either. Maybe it pleases some people because it’s unusual.

Main Coursey Things From the Wood Fired Grill –

Barrel Planked T and T Pork Secreto – romesco, grilled leeks – this is one of those names that makes you go huh???(kind of like Tasty N’ Sons) but having read a story on the inherent opening of Tails & Trotters in the new Ocean food complex, I understand it quite a bit more. IMG_3188First of all, for people who don’t know, Tails & Trotters (T&T) is a local pork butcher who sells “hazelnut finished pork” that is supposed to be the most delicious around. I just read a story on their new location, today, and they explained that Pork Secreto is an unusual cut from the shoulder area of the pig. This was a semi-Spanish preparation, with spices from that region. David said it was very tender, as well as very tasty. I think I had a bite, my memory is wavering, but I think it had a Middle Eastern flair, as far as the spices it was rubbed in.

Shoulder Tenders – None of us could figure out what the heck this was supposedly to be. As it was in the steak section, that made it likely it was beef, but all of us made that dubious association with chicken tenders, and who would want those, Paley or not?IMG_3187 As there were lots of meats on this menu I don’t enjoy eating, rabbit and lamb to name a couple I can remember, I was once again hoping to be saved by steak. Earlier I had contemplated trying to have this dinner on the cheap, getting the burger, but I would have felt stupid in a fancy place like this scarfing a burger, and you certainly can’t order a Parkerhouse Roll then a burger, you would look like a fool (and I should know!) They did have a fancy steak that was like $60, but since I can buy 12 steaks at Winco for that amount, that wasn’t going to happen (okay, I do understand that this was probably actual beef, and those Winco things are like Naugahyde meat.)

Anyway, as inquiring minds wanted to know, we finally rustled up the waitress, who explained that the Shoulder Tender was indeed beef, was indeed a steak, and was somewhat like a tenderloin, although obviously from the shoulder area (and obviously cheaper too, at like $24.) Glenda and I were both sold, especially as we could order them rare. IMG_3192 Glenda ordered her shoulder tender, and when pressed to get a side dish (this is one of those a la carte meat places) went for the Ember-Roasted Carrots – wild plum glaze and mint. I don’t know what was up with Glenda and these carrots, when they came, in a little flat griddle pan on a block of wood, she tried to reject them, largely because I don’t think she recognized what they were. I’m guessing she forgot that they were ember roasted, and didn’t know what to make of their black gooey state (probably from the sauce.) Anyway, she would barely eat them, she just didn’t seem to like the looks of them, but the rest of us enjoyed them, and didn’t care what they looked like. Her steak was a thing of beauty, however, perfectly rare, and she did really enjoy both the looks and the taste of that.

I had decided, when I first was perusing the online menu, that the Ember-Roasted and Crushed Potatoes – with butter, dill and Jacobsen sea salt, would indeed be a fine accompaniment should I decide to order meat.IMG_3176 So as little as I liked spending $6 for some side potatoes, I plunked down those 6 buckeroos, and was presented with another of those individual cast iron cooking/serving pans, this one with enough potatoes for two or three people. I supposed I was a little disappointed, mainly with my mental image of what an ember-roasted potato would be versus the reality of an ember-roasted potato, as I was thinking it would be sort of charred, crispy, and a bit smokey, like what you get off the barbecue at home, but these were just normal looking cooked potatoes, slightly crushed up. As a general rule they weren’t bad, perhaps a little on the dry side (although I did whip out my extra butter!) and the dill added some extra flavor. Actually, the main thing that ended up adding additional flavor, however, was that dastardly Jacobsen Sea Salt, it was a lot like the ocean had dried up and deposited its contents on my potatoes (salt only, no garbage or sea life.)

Whine and complain though I do here, I never send food back in a restaurant, I generally struggle through eating it. I do remember one time, about 12 years ago in Astoria, getting this dreadful french dip sandwich with rainbow roast beef and moldy bread in a restaurant on one of the piers there, and I did send the moldy bread back. That was a fruitful enterprise, as I seem to remember they gave me the same exact meat back again, this time sandwiched in stale, almost moldy bread. It’s good I didn’t have a blog then, eh? Anyway, suffering wimp that I am, I don’t remember returning other food to a “restaurant’s” kitchen.

IMG_3193I probably would have let the potatoes go, but as it happens, my beautiful looking steak was really salty too, and while I didn’t have the necessary male anatomy to send back a steak that was basically okay, except for way over-salted, I did decide I would say something to the waitress, as it didn’t seem fair that both the steak and the potatoes were both so heavily salted, especially as I am one who never adds additional salt to foods, except for boiled eggs (those little suckers do need some help.) I finished my steak, but decided I would make no effort to finish the potatoes, which were only about half gone, but that instead I would get other opinions (Cora confirmed, too salty) and wait for the waitress to come back, so I could mention “my issue.”

As it happened, as I was looking for the waitress, I glanced up and Vitaly Paley was coming down our aisle, as he, Ben Bettinger, and wife/hostess Kimberly Paley were circling the room, asking for comments on the food. IMG_3183I flagged him down, saying “you’re Mr. Paley, correct?” (so what if his chef’s tunic had his name on it, I can’t keep track of everything) and explained my potato dilemma to him (I didn’t mention my meat, as I ate it.) He explained that the kitchen used a specialty sea salt (Jacobsen) that was much healthier than average salt, but that the granules were a very inconsistent size, so as much as he preached moderation, the kitchen was still having issues with how much to salt things. It was obvious when he said this that the same line cook had salted both my meat and potatoes, and used the same excessive technique. Mr. Paley asked what he could do for me, how about some better potatoes? but when I showed him our table was basically finished eating the main part of the meal, he said he would make sure the potatoes were taken off the bill, which they were. I was happy with this resolution, as this was basically what I wanted, I didn’t have to pay for the potatoes, and Mr Paley’s attitude was gracious and apologetic. Incidentally, when he ordered his main dishes, David had also ordered a side of fries (Fry-Basket of Fries with secret sauce) but for some reason they came quite late in the meal, after David and everyone else was pretty full. They were good fries though, and the secret sauce was tasty, but once I started complaining about how over-salted my food was, David came to the conclusion that his big basket of fries was too salty. I think by then he just had saltiness on the brain, as I had several of his fries, and the salt content was nothing like what I had experienced, the fries were only slightly salty (it could have been the same cook though.)

Before the dinner Cora had looked at the online dessert menu and got all jacked-up over some warm huckleberry/peach skillet cake thing that she was dying to have (this is funny, because Cora always claims she’s not into dessert, but I hadn’t even noticed there was an online dessert menu.)IMG_3195 Naturally, when we got to the restaurant, the skillet cake had been changed to a different dessert, but there was another huckleberry creation, so I finally convinced her to try that, even if her original desires had been thwarted. The thing she had instead was something like an Apple and Mixed Berry Dumpling, and basically it was this wonderful little tart hot from the oven, encased in a rich, buttery pie crust. Really delicious, but as I had other desserts to tackle, I could only have so much.

Both Glenda and I went after the Chocolate Icebox Cake with roasted marshmallows and hazelnut ice cream.IMG_3196 This dessert made it plainly obvious that I had no idea what icebox cake is, as it was nothing like I had envisioned, being sort of an ice cream and cake combo, really cold, flat and moist. This is one of the nostalgic sort of desserts that has been mentioned quite often in comments and reviews I’ve read about Imperial, most people going bonkers over it. It tasted fine, especially the hazelnut ice cream, but I actually prefer a bit more elevation and less density in my cake. Glenda, on the other hand, when she had finished, remarked that she could eat an entire second portion, it was so good. She’s more of a chocolate freak than I am though (my freakiness resides in other areas.)

David and Shuhong didn’t order dessert, as is usual, but when the desserts came, there were five of them placed on the table. Naturally, we all exclaimed in alarm, “we didn’t order those two!” It turns out we didn’t have to order them, they were on the house, courtesy of Vitaly Paley, his generous gesture to make up for the salt issue.IMG_3200 As it really wasn’t necessary to give us anything additional, once the potato charge was removed from the bill, we all were impressed by the classy gesture, and as one of the additional desserts was really delicious, it made me feel better about struggling through my salty steak and not mentioning it. The dessert I liked best, although Cora’s fruit thing was really good, was the pie of the day, a Poppyseed Lemon Meringue affair. I love good pie, if it’s not overly sour, but this generally does not extend to lemon meringue, especially if the filling is too gloppy and the crust is tough. This lemon pie was nothing like that, the filling light and refreshing, almost like a cross between traditional lemon filling and lemon creme, and so refreshing, and the crust was rich and delicious, not at all like the flaky style crust Cora had had, but just excellent traditional pie crust. Our other complimentary dessert was a rich butterscotch like pudding, which I had a bite of and thought was good, but didn’t see much more of, as David and Shuhong apparently liked it best (which was fine with me, as I was trying to eat a multitude of other desserts.) By the time we were finished, we were all totally stuffed, not only due to the abundance of desserts, but to the fact that the previous portions were sizable as well.

Although it’s true that several of us really did not know what to make of the decor in this joint, I think we all agreed Imperial is a first class restaurant with an intriguing menu, although they still have a few kinks to work out (like consistent seasoning.) Over the years, various brand new restaurants I have visited with Restaurant Roulette have been incredibly impressive for how they seem to be firing on all cylinders from the moment they open, Toro Bravo, St. Jack, The Woodsman Tavern and Ox coming to mind, and so far (2 months in) Imperial has not quite attained this lofty a perch, but it’s a big place, so it might take longer to get itself completely in sync. IMG_3182Also, when you are a hotel dining room, and have to provide three plus meals a day, it’s unlikely that everything will be excellent, especially when you are trying to cater to a broad range of eaters. The service was consistently good during our evening, and it was encouraging to see Ben Bettinger, Kimberly Paley, and especially Vitaly Paley out interacting with people, welcoming their patrons, listening to input, not just resting on their previous laurels and assuming they will flourish just because of who they are. They clearly want the new place to succeed. I think a year from now, Imperial will be one of Portland’s favorite restaurants, it has a great pedigree and enough quirkiness to make it appealing on multiple visits. Another advantage Imperial has in my book, if I want to go back in the coming months, even on a weekend, that actually appears a possibility, it’s big enough that it doesn’t seem like the world’s biggest hassle to try to get a table there within a decent time frame (the disadvantage to lots of great, smaller places like Toro Bravo, Ox, Laurelhurst Market or Tasty N’ Sons, 2 hour waits.) That would be so cool, to actually be able to eat at a restaurant I really like, not just talk about eating there. It’s a mind boggling concept.

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